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Codeine is a medicine that is used to relieve pain and to reduce coughing.

Looking for a medicine?

Visit healthdirect’s list of medicines that contain codeine to find out more about a specific medicine.

Currently, not all forms of codeine need a doctor's prescription.

This will change in February 2018, however, when codeine-containing medicines will not be available without a prescription (see below).

At the moment, whether you need a prescription will depend on the strength of codeine in each dose and whether it is combined with other medicines.

Either way, you can buy codeine-containing medications from a pharmacy.

Here you will find more information on what codeine is, what it's used for, how it works, its risks and alternative treatment options.

What is codeine used for?

Codeine can be used to relieve mild to moderate pain. It is also used to treat dry coughs.

Your doctor might prescribe codeine for another reason. If you are unsure about why you are taking codeine, ask your doctor.

How does codeine work?

Codeine works by changing the way the brain senses and responds to pain. It also suppresses the activity in the brain that controls coughing.

What forms of codeine are available?

Codeine is available on its own, or in combination with other medicines like paracetamol, ibuprofen or aspirin. It is available in different:

  • brands
  • forms, including tablets, capsules and liquids
  • strengths
  • packaging
  • pack sizes.

Risks of taking codeine

Each person responds to medicines differently. Just because a side effect is listed, it doesn't mean you will experience it. Even if you experience a side effect, you and your doctor will need to weigh up the medicine's benefits against its risks before deciding what to do.

Common side effects of codeine include:

Serious side effects of codeine that need immediate medical attention include:

Codeine should not be given to children or teenagers under 18 after surgery to remove their tonsils or adenoids since it may slow their breathing, and in rare cases has led to death.

Taking codeine over long periods can be addictive.

This is not a full list of side effects for codeine. For more information, talk to your doctor or pharmacist. If you experience a serious or life-threatening side effect, you should immediately call triple zero (000).

Alternatives to codeine

Many other painkillers and cough-suppressing medicines can be used instead of codeine. Talk to your pharmacist or doctor about choosing the most suitable medicine for you or your child, based on your symptoms and overall health.

If you have chronic (long-term) pain your doctor might suggest lifestyle changes to help manage the discomfort. This may include physical fitness and activity pacing, social activities, complementary medicines and therapies, relaxation techniques and overall health management.

This page does not give you all the information about codeine. Please read the Consumer Medicines Information (CMI) for the brand of codeine you are taking, and if you have important questions, ask your pharmacist or doctor.

Changes in access to medicines that contain codeine

Changes from 1 February 2018 will make buying over-the-counter pain medicines safer for consumers.

After 31 January 2018, codeine and codeine-containing medicines will no longer be available without a prescription. The change covers many popular brands of pain-relieving products including Panadeine, Mersyndol, and Neurofen Plus.

Some Australians aren't aware that medicines that contain a low dose of codeine can cause harm. Like its close relative, morphine, codeine can cause tolerance and addiction in some people without their realising it. It is also possible to accidentally overdose on codeine.

If you currently take medicines that contain codeine and are concerned about the change in the law, you should ask your pharmacist or doctor about alternative medicines.

You should also consider alternatives to medicines if you have chronic pain – some people benefit from therapies that include cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) and low-intensity exercise, such as yoga or hydrotherapy.

Last reviewed: December 2016

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